In a golf world gone mad, this tiny par-3 has a story to celebrate

Golden Gate Park Golf Course in San Francisco

In its reborn form, Golden Gate Park Golf Course has regained lost features, including views

Andrew Harvie, Beyond the Contour

Has the past week in golf left you feeling low?

Are you tired of reading about equipment rollbacks and nine-figure deals for Tour defectors? Has the hyperventilating over ball speeds and big money made you wonder what’s become of the game you love?

Maybe you could use some news about a nifty little refuge where excess distance will never be an issue, prices tags won’t turn your stomach and greediness is measured by how aggressively you go for the flag. 

We’ve got you covered.

In our latest Muni Mondays celebration of the game — as played by ordinary people — we call your attention to a small green patch on the western flanks of San Francisco, within salt-spray distance of the beach.

A 9-hole par-3 layout, Golden Gate Park Golf Course has been around a while. Its roots reach back to 1951, when Jack Fleming, a former understudy of Alister Mackenzie, took advantage of terrain designers dream of. Set on dunes and framed by wind-shaped Cypress trees that call to mind the drawings of Dr. Seuss, Fleming’s work embodied the best of San Francisco golf, in miniature. But like a lot of munis, it was often overlooked and undervalued, taken for granted in a city that offered plenty else to do.

Decades passed, and Golden Gate GC endured the familiar indignities of age and deferred maintenance. Conditions grew bedraggled. Greens lost intrigue, shrinking into ovals. Trees shrouded views and shaded turf that needed sun.

This was the course that the architect Jay Blasi first laid eyes on when he moved to the Bay Area in the early 2000s. At the time, San Francisco’s best-known muni, Harding Park, was drawing toward the close of a massive overhaul that revived it as a viable championship venue. Almost no one spoke of the pint-sized track just down the road.

“You could tell it was a special property,” Blasi says. “It was just hidden by tall grass and overgrown trees.”

That was then. 

Early last week, Blasi was back at Golden Gate GC, grounds he has visited a bunch in recent months as he and his design team were wrapping up a $2.5 renovation that didn’t cost the city a cent. Funding for the $2.5 million project came instead from private donations to The First Tee-San Francisco, which for the past decade has operated the course as a program site for underserved youth. In its reborn form, the course has been stripped to its more rustic beginnings, with layers of soil peeled back to expose sandy wastes. Trees have been removed to open ocean vistas. Fescue has been planted — the turf of classic links. Teeing areas have been expanded. Greens have been enlarged and energized with contour. And new irrigation now underpins it all.

The rebirth comes at an interesting time in golf. As the pro game roils in controversy, recreational play is riding high, propelled, in part, by the popularity of short courses—the darlings of an industry that has awakened to their value as affordable, accessible and sustainable fun.

Golden Gate Park GC is meant to be all that, with less turf to mow and water, and more shot-making options. On holes that max out at 160 yards, you can play the aerial game, testing the breezes, or bounce it along firmed-up, rumpled ground. The 4th green is now a punchbowl. The 7th has wild fingerlings and flanges that invite creative angles of attack. The tee shot on the 8th can be played with putter. It’s a layout fit for newbies and serious sticks alike. In the nuance of its shapes and the beauty of its surroundings, it is not absurd to rank it among the finest par-3 courses in the country.

When it reopens to the public (that official date remains a month or so out, as the clubhouse is being rebuilt) rates will remain close to what they were: $20-$25 for locals; $40-$50 for non-residents. Reasonable. Refreshing. A real opportunity to ‘grow the game,’ free of any cynicism or spin. That’s Golden Gate Park for you: a bastion of sanity in a golf world gone mad.

Josh Sens Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.